Chris Wilson came back to give back.
The former all-state football standout at Flint Northern, Division II college All-America and Washington Redskins player returned to his struggling hometown for good in August 2015, determined to make a positive difference.
To that end, Wilson continued the work of the CSW Faith Foundation he founded with his wife, Sharena,in 2010 with the objective of “educating and opening avenues for students to earn scholarships, grants, and other means toward a college education.” That meant organizing camps and combines in Flint, where Wilson and others taught participants about succeeding on the gridiron and in life.
A man of strong faith, Wilson also became active in after-school programs, involved himself in aiding those affected by the Flint Water Crisis and served as an assistant coach at Southwestern High.
“Basically, I feel it’s very important to show kids the way to a better life and how to become successful people and that’s why I wanted to live in Flint again after my playing career,” he said. “I am an example of what can happen if you develop an action plan for life and work hard to see it through. I wanted to pass that knowledge on.”
Now, Wilson, 34, has an even greater platform from which to impart his knowledge of and passion for both football and a fulfilling life.
Last month, Flint’s Board of Education approved combining the athletic programs of Flint’s two remaining high schools – Southwestern and Northwestern – beginning this fall and hired Wilson to coach the unified football squad.
“I immediately applied for the job because I felt confident I was ready to become a head coach and was excited about how I can use the position to be sure kids are moving their lives in a positive direction,” said Wilson, who spent last season as a defensive and special teams coach at Vermilion Junior College in Ely, Minn.
“My time at Vermilion was very beneficial as far as improving my coaching skills. I learned a lot, but did not want to spend next season splitting time between Flint and Minnesota, so I began looking into other coaching opportunities and, fortunately, this worked out.”
Wilson, who played defensive end and outside linebacker in two stints with the Redskins (2007-2010, 2012), feels he’s off and running after a May 4 meeting attended by about 50 prospective players and their parents. The team’s uniforms and colors (teal and black) also were unveiled.
An off-season conditioning program began four days later.
“I told them about my expectations of them and for the season and talked about what happens if they don’t give 100% to the team,” Wilson said. “I feel it’s good for kids to have expectations placed on them and I felt the passion and sparks in their eyes. I think they responded well to what I was saying and are feeling they can be more competitive next season.”
Northwestern and Southwestern, both members of the Saginaw Valley League, have struggled to remain competitive in recent years with a combined record of just 18-108 since 2010. No Flint city school has made the playoffs since now-shuttered Flint Central in 2004.
“I don’t set a win total as a goal because the goal is to win every game,” Wilson said. “I believe that who you really are comes out in stressful situations when the pressure is on, so if we just concentrate on developing players who have championship character, are determined to get the most out of themselves and are all on the same page, winning will take care of itself.”
Among the top returnees should be first-team, all-league running back Jacari Roberts, who rushed for 1,097 yards and four touchdowns in 2016. Another running back, Cortez Jackson, finished with 662 yards and made the all-league second team. Quarterback Zameer Wallace and lineman Devon Beacoats were honorable mention.
“We felt Chris is the right man for the job because he understands the challenges Flint kids face,” said Southwestern athletic director Joe Tyler, who added that the process of hiring other varsity coaches continues. “With his experience and athletic background, Chris will be able to teach the kids about proper conditioning, strategy, technique and nutrition to get the most out of them. He’ll also demand that they be true student-athletes and not let their grades slip.”
Among the players enthusiastically embracing the Wilson way is Levolia Thames, a tight end/safety who played at Northwestern last season.
“When I first heard that Chris Wilson was going be our coach, I didn’t quite believe it, but I love it,” he said. “He’s just as excited as we are about the season and we’re ready for whatever he has for us to do. We all want to improve and make Flint proud.”
Most logistical issues have been resolved.
Northwestern and Southwestern will remain open, but will be known as North Campus and South Campus. Football practices will be held at the North Campus, but all home games will be played at Atwood Stadium near downtown Flint.
The North Campus also will host all soccer activities while all tennis, softball and baseball events will be held at the South Campus. Basketball activities will rotate between the sites and a bus will be available to transport players to and from both schools for all games and practices.
A mascot has not been chosen, but the plan is for students to nominate ideas through student government. Final nominees will be voted on by the entire Southwestern and Northwestern student bodies.
That will serve as one way of bringing the former rivals together, though Wilson and Thames do not see team unity as an issue.
“I think people will be pleasantly surprised by how well the players all come together under our theme of one team, one dream,” Wilson said. “I believe they are ready to focus on setting a new standard for Flint football success and success as men beyond high school.”
Added Thames: “We are all just excited for the season, especially after the meeting where everything went great. We love the uniform colors and can’t wait to start a new era for Flint football.”
While Wilson is looking forward to what lies ahead, there are times when he can hardly believe that Flint, which had four prep football teams as recently as 2008, is down to one. Flint Central closed in 2009 and Northern in 2013.
“When I was playing at Northern, I never could have imagined this situation because we had more kids in our school (1,520) than Southwestern and Northwestern combined have this year (1,382),” he said. “I feel bad for my players, in a way, because going against your Flint peers when playing the other city schools was a great experience. It was great for the winning team to have bragging rights and still talk about it years later.”
While humble by nature, Wilson has earned the right to brag about emerging from humble beginnings to reach the NFL.